March 3, 2012
Soup is one of those things that everyone likes well enough, but no one is all that passionate about. Correct me if I’m wrong, but most people don’t sit down for dinner at a nice restaurant and look for the soup section on the menu. The only time I eat soup out is when it’s a pre-appetizer dish, like miso soup at a Japanese restaurant. Or if I’m on Cape Cod and there’s clam chowder on the menu. Or Portuguese kale soup. Okay, maybe I do like soup well enough to order it, but I still generally associate it with boring one-pot meals and the flu.
Soup is also one of those things, like bread, that every country seems to have a national version of. Think of gazpacho in Spain, avgolemono in Greece, pozole in Mexico, pho in Vietnam, borsht in Russia, tom yum in Thailand—these soups are virtually synonymous with their country’s cuisine. In the U.S. we have regional soups: gumbo in Creole country, clam chowder in the Northeast, wild rice soup in the Midwest. And then there’s the ubiquitous Campbell’s tomato soup, immortalized by Andy Warhol.
Maybe I just think soup is boring because I tend to make it as an easy meal that I can cook on Sunday and eat all week. Usually my soups involve some sort of bean—split peas, lentils, chickpeas, white beans, black beans, etc.—to make them heartier. When I was in college I practically lived off of a lentil soup that my aunt made once and I adapted and readapted so many times that it probably does not resemble the original recipe at all. The key ingredients to this Curried Lentil Soup (recipe below) are lentils, tomatoes, spinach, and curry powder. It’s incredibly easy to make, cheap, and nutritious. The curry powder makes it a bit spicy and very flavorful—definitely not boring!
But getting back to soup in general, here is a list of the best soups I’ve ever tasted, in no particular order:
- Portuguese kale soup at Napi’s Restaurant in Provincetown, Massachusetts
- Asparagus and rice soup with pancetta and black pepper from the Zuni Café Cookbook
- The fish chowder at The Fish Trap in St. John (I ate this 14 years ago, so I can’t vouch for its current flavor, but the fact that I still remember it says something)
- My mom’s sorrel soup made with sorrel from her garden
- Tom Volk’s gazpacho (extra spicy and made with vegetables from his garden)
- My Italian roommate’s calamari and black bean soup (she was disappointed by it but I loved it!)
- Tom yum with sea bass at a restaurant near the Chiang Mai Zoo in Thailand
Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté another 5 minutes. Turn up the heat and stir in the curry powder and bay leaf. Cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly, to toast the curry powder. Add the tomatoes, lentils, and salt, and cover with water (about 6 cups). Bring the soup to a boil, turn the heat to low, and simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes. The lentils should be tender, but still have some bite. Add more water if the soup is too thick. Roughly chop the spinach leaves and stir into the soup. Simmer for another 5-10 minutes to cook the spinach. Serve with lemon wedges on the side.